- By Joshua Keating
Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy
In today’s Morning Brief, I noted that French President François Hollande had vowed to intervene to prevent Islamist fighters from making further inroads into government-controlled territory in Mali. That intervention now seems to be official:
French soldiers were intervening alongside the Malian army and other troops from Western African countries, Mr. Hollande said in a short televised address.
“This afternoon, French armed forces lent support to units of the Malian army to fight against terrorists,” Mr. Hollande said. “This operation will last as long as needed.”
Mr. Hollande’s decision to dispatch soldiers to Mali marks a shift in France’s strategy. Paris had earlier said it wouldn’t send troops to Mali, though it said it was ready to help coordinate a multilateral intervention in the country.
Although the intervention comes at the request of interim President Dioncounda Traoré, the idea of French troops on the ground in a country that was a French colony until 1960 (not to mention fighting on behalf of a military-installed government) is sure to make many uneasy. It’s France’s second intervention into Francophone Africa in recent years, following the operation to arrest recalcitrant former Ivoirian President Laurent Gbagbo in 2011. Given that it’s Hollande championing the Mali operation, it’s also a sign that the newfound military interventionism of Nicolas Sarkozy’s final months — the Ivory Coast operation and the international intervention spearheaded by France in Libya — was not just an election-year fluke.
Peter Chilson’s new FP ebook, We Never Knew Exactly Where, which features vivid firsthand accounts of his travels in the very areas where internationally backed government forces are now clashing with Islamist militants, also revisits France’s role in Mali’s history, looking at how colonialism shaped the region’s political geography and led to many of its current problems:
TO UNDERSTAND THE BROADER picture of Mali’s problems, it helps to look back to 1904, when the French organized 1.8 million square miles of rainforest, savanna, and desert — and some 10 million people — into eight colonies. The French dreamed of exploiting mineral and agricultural wealth by building a railroad from the Mediterranean Sea south across the Sahara into its sub-Saharan territories. Little stood in France’s way. Its great competitor, Britain, showed scant interest in colonizing the Sahara. So France went ahead and defined its colonies on paper, proverbial lines in the sand crisscrossing West Africa. The French redrew the lines countless times, dividing land according to stability and wealth but never carefully verifying the borders on the ground. Those colonies are now countries. Here they are, including their colonial names:
Benin (formerly Dahomey)
Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta)
Mali (formerly French Sudan)
From Dakar, Senegal’s capital, the French ran the colonies as one block called l’Afrique-occidentale française, or AOF. On maps, the French shuffled and reshuffled West Africa in chunks big and small. They even used scissors. Take, for instance, the colony of Upper Volta, whose territory was reorganized and parceled out to Niger, French Sudan, and Ivory Coast a total of seven times. The French made the last change in 1947, establishing the borders that still frame independent Burkina Faso, which shares a 600-mile border with Mali. To add to the confusion, the French never planned for the independence of their African colonies, which means they poorly marked the ground between colonies that bordered each other. They drew the lines on paper without keeping track of the changes, as if they were writing a sloppy epic novel. Much of that paperwork is now lost. Even a 1963 U.S. State Department study of “boundaries in former French Africa” warns that “almost every local and French map is at variance on detail.”
There’s much more fascinating material in the book. Check it out now.